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Private Passions: Lights, Camera, Action!

Michael Seresin is the owner of Pinot Noir focused, biodynamically farmed Seresin Estate in Marlborough, which he founded in 1992. Born in Wellington in 1942, Seresin left his homeland in 1966 for the UK to pursue his dream of becoming a cinematographer. After a stint of filming car commercials and working on The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, Seresin’s career took off after he collaborated with director Alan Parker on Bugsy Malone and Midnight Express. More recently he teamed up with Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, working as the director of photography on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Gravity. Based in London, he splits his time between the UK, New Zealand and his beloved Italy.

Michael Seresin at his home in London’s Little Venice

Was film something you were interested in as a child?

The first film to have an effect on me was The Third Man with Orson Wells, which I saw by mistake at a Saturday matinee on my eighth birthday. They were due to be playing a Randolph Scott western at my local cinema, so my mum gave me a shilling to go and see it, but instead of seeing a western the projectionist got his reels of film mixed up and I ended up watching The Third Man, which is a heavy duty movie for anyone, let alone an eight-year-old, but it was a brilliant film and I still love it.

How did you get into working in films?

While I was at university in Wellington I joined the film society. At the time New Zealand was quite socialist in a lot of ways (and sadly that’s gone), so I got exposed to a lot of Russian cinema, and films from Eastern Europe, France and Italy – it was the beginning of the ‘nouvelle vague’ in France and ‘neo realismo’ in Italy. I loved those films because they showed a slice of city life. I got into trouble at uni and only ended up staying two years. My old man had a friend called John O’ Shea who owned a little company called Pacific Films and I got a job there as a gopher and ended up shooting documentaries, commercials and two films.

What was your next step after your stint at Pacific Films?

I met an actress on one of the movies I worked on and we ended up getting married and moving to Rome. I didn’t really work while I was there but I absorbed Roman culture. I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t speak Italian, but the great thing about being in Rome was absorbing the street life. There was a little café in the Piazza del Popolo I used to go to where all the film people used to hang out. It felt like being in a Fellini film compared to life in New Zealand, as Rome was the Hollywood of Europe in those days. To my 22-year-old self it was incredible and I felt very at home.

Seresin of the set of Mowgli, directed by Andy Serkis

How did you get back into the industry?

I moved to the UK in 1966 and started working as a freelance as soon as I got into the union. I enjoyed the risk and the danger of it. There was a really good spirit back then, and in 1968 I worked on The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour as a camera assistant. Then I got introduced to a guy who ran a company that made adverts and worked my way up with him to being a cinematographer.

I was very fortunate to do very well very quickly. I directed a load of car commercials for Volkswagen and Renault; they were mini films shot in Europe that told a story. The budgets were huge for them. The lovely thing about it was that there was a huge amount of trust, which paid off creatively.

What was the film that launched your career?

I did two films with Alan Parker, Bugsy Malone and Midnight Express, which helped launch my career. Bugsy isn’t my favourite film – it’s an all studio film and I’m not a fan of those. I prefer darker dramatic stuff.

Midnight Express in terms of reputation did a lot more for me than Bugsy. I was young, around 29, and being given millions of bucks by studios to make big location movies – there was an incredible camaraderie among the key people on the films and we worked hard.

How is technology changing the film making process?

With digital you can shoot in colour then turn it black-and-white if that’s the look you want. The last few films I’ve done digitally, starting with Gravity. The choice of film versus digital isn’t mine – I can discuss it with the director but ultimately the decision is a financial one.

Film has something tangible about it – it’s a physical process. In the end as long as the film gets made it doesn’t really matter what it’s shot on. I would rather shoot on film but I’m not going to turn down a digital project as a matter of principal.

How would you describe your style as a cinematographer?

Filmmaking is a very mechanical process and my job is to story tell moving images as minimally as possible without interrupting the actors. Some cinematographers are much more demanding. I rarely ask an actor to do something for me. I did it once with Al Pacino and he said no. I asked him to keep his chin up a little while working on a film called City Hall, but he said he couldn’t do it for his character in that particular scene. I liked the challenge and we made it work.

Are you essentially painting with light?

To say I paint with light sounds pretentious but I do. I always look at the light I’ve got to work with – today there’s a soft skylight. It’s not sunlight, it’s north light like in a painter’s studio; reflective soft shadowless light. I like that – it has a nice feel to it dramatically. If I was shooting on a set then I would try to recreate something like this, unless I needed harsh shadows because I love shadows and darkness.

Darkness is more interesting than light because it feeds an audience’s imagination if you can’t quite see something. I’ve been nicknamed the prince of darkness because my stuff is pretty dark. The hardest part of my job is the justification of a light source. I always ask myself what would be giving me the light here – is it moonlight or a street light or the general ambient light of a city…

What is your favourite lens to shoot with?

There’s a part of me that likes using long lenses as an observer. I like Leica lenses a lot. Cuarón likes super wide-angle lenses, which is a huge challenge because his cameras are moving all the time. We did scenes on Gravity when the camera was moving 180 degrees, so where am I going to put the lights? We order around 10 lenses per film and probably end up only using four of them. I like working with a 35mm. That and 50mm are the conventional lenses as it’s what we as humans see. We shot close up for Midnight Express.

Interview continues on the next page… 

Seresin with American director Matt Reeves

What do you consider to be the most beautifully shot films of all time?

Two films that I find visually powerful are a Russian/Cuban co-production called Soy Cuba, made in the mid-‘60s in Cuba – some of the technical work is groundbreaking; and The Last Picture Show from 1971 – the images are arresting and served the film so well. Each frame could have been a standalone postcard.

Would you like to see cinematographers get more recognition?

The two people who are least recognised in terms of their contribution to a film are the editor and the cinematographer. Cinematography has become much more democratic – there’s less mystery to it now. Directors of photography used to control everything because nobody else knew how to do it. I know if I walk on a set and ask everyone to clear out then they will, but the role has become a lot more democratic and it’s not necessarily always for the best. There are monitors all over the place now and everyone can see what’s going on. The one thing you can’t change is the lighting – once you’ve committed it to film you’re stuck with it, but you can always redo sound.

Seresin on the set of Dawn of The Planet of the Apes

Have you ever sat in the director’s seat?

I’ve directed one film called Homeboy starring Mickey Rourke, who handed me the script when we were in a helicopter bound for New Orleans. He was a big star back then and we ended up mostly going with what Mickey wrote in the film. He raised all the funding and we had a good cast that included Christopher Walken.

Mickey was a bit all over the place but the final decisions on the film were his. I got offered a few other directing gigs after that but I didn’t really like them and they didn’t mean that much to me. I really like shooting movies; I get huge pleasure out of that.

What was it like working with Alfonso Cuarón on Gravity?

Cuarón is different from other directors and has an incredibly choreographed camera that’s moving all over the place, which makes the cinematographer’s job that much more difficult and that much more interesting.

We made Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban together the same way you would make a small movie. It was pretty dark but a lot of people say it was the best and the most interesting cinematically of all the Potter films. We became good friends while working on it.

I wasn’t involved in the prep for Gravity – I took over from a director of photography called Emmanuel Lubezki who went to film school with Cuarón. I was due to go in for two days to help out and ended up staying six weeks and shooting over half of the movie.

I turned up at Shepperton Studios not really knowing what was going on as I hadn’t read the script. There were more macs than an Apple store as it was filmed with maximum CGI. You get to a point where you feel comfortable in your own skin about doing most things. Alfonso was very trusting and has a really good eye. Not all directors have a good visual sense.

You shot half the movie and ended up with an ‘additional photography’ credit – would you have liked to have had a shared credit with Emmanuel Lubezki who won the Oscar for it?

I don’t even know what happened. I was only supposed to be going in for two days but they kept calling me back in. It didn’t matter as I was helping out my friend and that was the important thing. I didn’t even think about the Oscar. Alan Parker said ‘those who know, know’. It’s only when other people raise the subject that I’ve thought about it. I guess it’s nice to be recognised by your peers. I don’t actually know what it means if you get it, but I suppose any award it quite nice.

Seresin with Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón on the set of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

How important is it to have a good dynamic with the director?

Having a good rapport with a director makes working with somebody more pleasant; it’s like any relationship. Historically the camera was the centre of everything, now with digital a film crew is a lot more spread out. I spend half my time in a trailer looking at a screen.

It’s important to gain the director’s trust. Alan Parker and I have always gotten on well as we share an irreverent sense of humour. We’ve had big rows too – I’ve told Parker to stick the film up his jacksie a few times.

The next minute we’re sharing a bottle of wine over dinner. I’ve had a few run-ins with Cuarón, but you never know the pressure they’re under.

Do you feel you’re given enough time on set to execute your vision?

I don’t mind feeling rushed on set. I like the pressure and I respond to it. Days cost hundreds of thousands of dollars so the studio worries about every cent, which is how it is and how it should be. Everyone thought digital would speed up the film making process but that hasn’t really happened. Most films are 75-90 day shoots. On War for the Planet of the Apes we did 50 nights in the run-up to Christmas and finished at 4am on Christmas Eve. I’ve turned down some big films recently because I want to do smaller projects. I’ve done a film a year and I’m away for up to nine months. My kids come and visit me on set. It’s all I’ve ever known so it’s the norm for me.

What can movies teach us about life?

Life is tough for a lot of people, so film is a form of escapism. Historically America has always done that the best, from musicals to love stories. I’ve never been a big fan of that. I don’t mind really dark, unrelenting films – maybe it’s the Russian side of me. My dad was of Russian Jewish descent. Films feed our imaginations and the more our imagination is fed, the more we’re challenged. I think our brains are hugely under-used. Films teach us things but you’ve got to be careful about not being too preachy. The recently released Cold War is a bit preachy in its way. Some films are documenting what happened. The question is, do you want to be reminded of it? A lot of people do because they’ve lived through it.

What’s your next project?

I’m working on a movie with Gary Oldman about the life of English photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who was known for his pioneering work in motion-picture projection. Oldman will direct and star in the film, which is quite dark as Muybridge shot and killed Major Harry Larkyns, his wife’s lover, in 1874, but was acquitted on the grounds of justifiable homicide. We’re discussing whether to shoot it digitally or on film at the moment. Kodak are keen for us to go with them as it’s a film about a photographer. The movie takes place when there was no electricity, so we’ve done a lot of research on oil lights, candles and gas by looking at old photos. All they had back then was moonlight and gaslight.

Click through for more pictures from Seresin’s film archives…

Seresin with Kate Winslet on the set of The Life of David Gale

A young Michael Seresin at work

Seresin on the set of Fame with director Alan Parker

Seresin and Parker collaborated on Bugsy Malone and Midnight Express

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